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Wind and solar projects will power half of U.S. utilities’ new output for 2015

REUTERS/Eric Thayer
Wind power alone will provide 9.8 GW of new electricity in 2015.

Generally it’s best to prefer the long view when considering trends in U.S. adoption of renewable energy, where progress usually has been more steady than swift.

But I think a fresh analysis in Tuesday’s Today in Energy, a publication of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is worth a look. A snapshot in time, yes, but an interesting and encouraging one.

The agency just closed out its data gathering for calendar 2014, a process that includes asking utility-scale electric power generators about the new capacity they are adding in the year ahead.

For 2015, these companies told the EIA they plan to boost their combined output by about 20 gigawatts. More than half of that will come from new wind and solar installations.

Indeed, wind power alone will provide nearly half the new capacity – 9.8 GW. Solar, a comparative newcomer at utility scale, will add 2.2 GW.

Combined, the two will account for nearly twice the new capacity being added in natural gas-fired generation, the other large growth sector, which comes in at 6.3 GW.

Visible in the far distance, but only just, is new nuclear. If the Tennessee Valley Authority’s troubled and much-delayed Watts Bar 2 project comes on line next December, as the TVA is now predicting, the first new reactor to join the U.S. nuke fleet in two decades will add but 1.1 GW to the national supply.

Rounding out the list are miscellaneous renewables projects that will add less than half a gigawatt.

Natural-gas plants closing

The EIA also asks the utilities about capacity they plan to retire, and the takedowns add to about 16 GW. Just under 13 of those are coal-fired, no surprise, but about 2 MW are from natural gas, with not quite 1 MW in a category marked petroleum and other.

There are some interesting details to be found in the agency’s regional analysis:

  • Wind additions are largely found in the Plains states, with nearly 8.4 GW, or 85% of total wind additions, found between North Dakota and Minnesota in the north, to Texas and New Mexico in the south.
  • Utility-scale solar additions of systems with at least one megawatt of capacity are dominated by two states—California (1.2 GW) and North Carolina (0.4 GW)—which combined for 73% of total solar additions. Both states have renewable portfolio standard (RPS) policies in place, with North Carolina’s policy including a solar-specific target. These figures do not include small-scale installations such as residential rooftop solar photovoltaic systems.
  • Natural gas additions are spread throughout the country, but Texas is adding more than double any other state (1.7 GW, 27% of total natural gas additions). There are also many additions in the Mid-Atlantic region, with more than 1.6 GW, or 26% of total natural gas additions, expected in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland.

These trends, which the EIA says are consistent with overall patterns of recent years, are captured in more detail by the March edition of the agency’s Electric Power Monthly, which came out a week earlier and is more about numbers, less about narrative.

U.S. Energy Information Agency
A map from EIA shows the location and capacity of new power generation projects planned for 2015.

Year-over-year shifts

Still, I found some things to highlight in its year-over-year comparisons of electric power generation by energy source. These figures are for what EIA calls the “electric power industry,” which includes not only utility-scale generators but independent power producers and small commercial or industrial plants (the latter two categories contributing less than 1 percent of the total).

Here are the percentage changes from December 2013 to December 2014 for major energy sources:

  • Coal: down 12.1 percent to 124,715 gigawatt hours.
  • Natural gas: down 3.1 percent to 90,077 GWH.
  • Nuclear: up 2.9 percent to 73,363 GWH.
  • Large hydroelectric: up 6.1 percent to 22,420 GWH.
  • Renewables: up 5.0 percent, to 22,708 GWH.

The data further consider renewables by type. Wind was the biggest contributor by far, at 14,696 GWH (up 5.0 percent), but solar, both thermal and photovoltaic, posted the biggest growth rate at 15.9 percent (to 985 GWH).

Geothermal, wood and other biomass combined added a bit over 7,000 GWH to the total as of last December, about 3 percent more than a year earlier.

Remember, these figures reflect trends only in large-scale power generation: utilities in the year-ahead figures, and utilities plus other commercial and industrial generators in the year-over-year comparisons.

On the residential side

For a look at residential installations, which is where a lot of the action for solar is right now, I recommend a report out Tuesday from Bloomberg, which examined industry research showing that residential installations in the U.S. had passed the 1 GW mark for the first time, while demand grew by 20 percent over the course of 2014.

Citing data from the Solar Energy Industries Association, assembled with assistance from GTM Research, Bloomberg said:

Developers installed a record 6.2 gigawatts of panels last year, including about 1.2 gigawatts atop homes, the Washington-based trade group said today in a statement. About 3.9 gigawatts of utility-scale and 1 gigawatt of commercial solar power were added.

The residential market remained the fastest-growing segment, gaining at least 50 percent in each of the past three years, as cheaper panels and growing consumer awareness of climate change spurred interest among homeowners.

And last year was the first, according to Bloomberg, in which California didn’t account for more than half the residential market.

I looked up the SEIA report and learned that if residential solar installations are counted alongside industrial-scale projects, “solar provided roughly one-third of all new electric generating capacity in the U.S. in 2014.”

Minnesota has not yet cracked SEIA’s list of top-10 states with the most installed capacity, which as of the  third quarter of 2013 went like this for photovoltaic power at residential, nonresidential and utility scales (figures in megawatts):

California (642.1), Nevada (176.6), North Carolina (95.4), Massachusetts (85.2), Texas (81.5), New York (39.3), New Jersey (38.6), Arizona (30), Hawaii (29.2), Missouri (21.2).

Snapshots in time, as I said, but rather pretty ones.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 03/13/2015 - 10:03 am.

    Whenever I start to feel blue…

    …about the slow pace of going green in Minnesota, I remember this summary of our progress cited in a July 17, 2014 New York Times story about our energy efforts:

    “Today, Minnesota gets more of its power from wind than all but four other states, and the amount of coal burned at power plants has dropped by more than a third from its 2003 peak. And while electricity consumption per person has been slowly falling nationwide for the last five years, Minnesota’s decline is steeper than the average.”

    Wind power continues to grow here, and solar has no where to go but up.

    Color me encouraged.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/13/2015 - 12:59 pm.

    http://www.cfact.org/2015/03/10/solar-power-propaganda-vs-the-real-world/

    Solar is a bigger subsidy black hole than ethanol. It may get there someday, but not by 2015.

    BTW, I’m all for solar and wind, as long as it pays for itself….saves more freedom juice for cars & bikes!

  3. Submitted by Jeff Michaels on 03/13/2015 - 04:14 pm.

    The Untold Story

    I talked recently with a licensed engineer who works in the area of solar and wind energy. He told me the real problem is the inability to store electricity generated from those sources. Until a solution is found, we will have to rely on traditional energy sources. Interestingly, that significant qualification never seems to make it into news stories discussing energy alternatives.

    • Submitted by Ed Kohler on 03/13/2015 - 08:36 pm.

      When will storage become a problem?

      Storage doesn’t seem like much of an issue if renewables are creating less electricity than we’re using. And, it’s not necessarily an issue at times when an excess of electricity is created either, though it would be nice to be able to use what’s generated.

      To be fully independent of polluting fuel sources would require storage of over-production on sunny/windy days to cover calm/cloudy days, but renewable production levels are nowhere near those levels today. As Jay pointed out, this is well documented and obvious.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/16/2015 - 08:19 am.

      Solutions

      Those solutions have already been found–it’s just a matter of implementing them. For wind all you have to do is use them to run pumps to fill a reservoir with water. Use the water to run turbines and you have electricity on demand.

      With solar you can do as the Spanish have done and focus mirrors on a salt system. Melt the salt and use the heat to drive a steam turbine. And the salt stays liquid long after the sun has gone down.

      I suspect what you’re referring to though is more along the line of batteries for a home installation. The above solutions are on an industrial scale, practical only for a utility. With batteries though you’re looking at an issue that is far larger than just renewable energy. An efficient low cost battery is something engineers have been working on for decades. If they can solve that issue they’ll have a product that’s not just applicable for renewable energy, but also electric cars, cell phones, and anything else that runs off a battery.

  4. Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 03/13/2015 - 07:27 pm.

    “Seems” is an interesting word

    “He told me the real problem is the inability to store electricity generated from those sources. Until a solution is found, we will have to rely on traditional energy sources. Interestingly, that significant qualification never seems to make it into news stories discussing energy alternatives.”

    If one goes to Google News and searches for the words “renewable” and “storage”, a number of articles pop up from yesterday about a new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The press release on that site is entitled “North American Utilities and Defense Show Appetite for Energy Storage and Solar”. That’s just one recent example.

    If one does a targeted Google search of the MinnPost site specifically for the words “electricity” and “storage”, it generates 130 results.

    Storage is a factor well-understood and discussed by energy professionals, particularly its necessity as the mix of energy sources in grids changes more towards natural, renewable resources and supplants traditional, non-renewable baseline sources. It is often discussed in news stories if one pays attention to such things.

    One should never confuse reality with one’s limited perception of it, of what it “seems” to be.

  5. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 03/13/2015 - 08:32 pm.

    “New output”

    I was initially amazed by the headline until I realized that the percentage was of new production not all production. Still good news. As Jimmy Fallon said about more U.S. citizens having health insurance “It’s amazing how many more people will do something when you make it the law and penalize those who break it”. wind and solar power have the benefit of new government mandates.

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 03/13/2015 - 09:11 pm.

    I own and use solar panels plus a wind turbine. It works fine in the summer to supply a 2nd garage that doubles as a small apartment for 5 months. Just about deer season the system can’t keep up with the demands. Batteries are the major problem. If/when the storage of power improves, I would recommend a system. My cabin is in Northern Minn, not ideal for sun.

  7. Submitted by rolf westgard on 03/20/2015 - 06:22 am.

    Reality numbers

    Capacity is one thing; actual power output is another.
    That 1.1 GW nuclear plant will operate at the 92% capacity factor of all US nukes in 2014. That is about equal to several times that amount of solar capacity and 3 times wind which operate only at times.
    And that nuke will be on day and night, wind or calm, rain or shine. And the grid won’t have to stop and start natural gas plants for it, as they do to balance the erratic output from wind and solar. Wind and solar have a future, but they depend on direct subsidies and must take laws as some of the commenters have noted here.

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